We need to progress beyond a totally technology-oriented view of the ‘Smart City’. Guillaume Degroisse, L’Atelier’s Global Head of Marketing & Content, describes how the Smart City concept is evolving towards a city model that enables citizens to get involved through digital technology: call it the ‘Engaged City’.
To find the first mention of the Smart City concept, you have to go back to 1992, the year a volume in the ‘Que sais-je’ (‘What do I know?’) series – designed to teach the general public something about specialist subjects – appeared, written by Gabriel Dupuy, on the subject of ‘computerising cities’. But in fact we had to wait until the beginning of the 2000s for the term to be widely used. IBM was the first company to use it in its marketing literature for the mayors of large cities looking to computerise city services. But most memorably, it was Bill Clinton who breathed life into the idea when he asked John Chambers, then CEO of Cisco Systems, at a dinner whether, given the vast array of technology and networks his company was working with, he might perhaps consider working towards making cities easier and more pleasant to live in – ‘smarter’ in fact.
At the same time, at the other end of the world, in South Korea, two smart city projects were getting underway, at Songdo and Seoul. Then in 2010, everything speeded up. In Spain, the city of Santander began widespread deployment of electronic sensors, 10,000 in all. This is hardly a huge number for a large city and today there are 20,000 sensors installed there. For its time however, this was a large and unprecedented investment. The city of Santander’s approach was an interesting one as it was entirely empirical. The town hall worked in tandem with local universities to roll out small boxes containing integrated circuits designed to measure and capture data, to a large extent without knowing exactly what the information would be used for. They were just progressing a little further along the computerisation curve. This decade has now seen widespread adoption of a Smart City concept which envisages service optimisation through computerisation and the use of Big Data.
Failures provide some lessons for the smart citizen-oriented city
However, it does not take long to see how the situation is evolving, mainly as a result of some obvious failures. Take for instance the city of Tianjin, in China. As with Songdo in South Korea, this is a new city created from scratch as a showroom for Smart City technology, but Tianjin is still not managing to attract anyone to live there. Some 300,000 residents were expected to come and live in Tianjin but today there are no more than 30,000.
In fact, people are now becoming aware that the Smart City, in the purely technological sense, is not necessarily the best solution. On the other hand, making the city serve its citizens through digital technology – that’s the second revolution, which is now underway.
Residents start to interact with local authority systems only when those systems have reached a certain level of efficiency. Smart City residents can then rediscover their role as consumers. The city’s public services then have to become customer-oriented.
As an example, you are no doubt aware that the US emergency services number is 911, but that all major US cities also have a non-emergency contact number: 311. This non-emergency number is in fact linked to local authority services. A US citizen can use this number to report any potholes in the road or problems with traffic lights. The idea is to involve residents – on an ongoing basis and in real time – in the improvement of their own services. Whether we’re talking about Boston, San Francisco, Lyon, or at Issy-lès-Moulineaux close to Paris, you can see how all big city mayors are starting to re-position themselves as a sort of ‘Chief Digital Officer’. This shows they have grasped the fact that nowadays the local citizens expect to be able to interact fast with City Hall so as to flag up problems or submit proposals.
Enter the ‘smart citizen’
This is precisely what is of particular interest to us here at L’Atelier: the ‘smart citizen’ revolution, the advent of the engaged citizen. A citizen who is not content to simply inform the authorities about problems out on the street but wants to have open, ongoing communication with City Hall. The online services that we have grown accustomed to using on our computers and mobile devices are now arriving in our cities.
The concept of ‘empowerment’ popularised by marketers in the United States, i.e. people becoming aware of their own power to affect and direct their own lives, is now expanding from the world of the consumer to the citizen sphere. There has been a shift in the political paradigm. We’re moving away from the idea of ‘a people’, as a single entity, to the idea of multiplicity, of a network of individuals who come together to serve their own interests. A report published in 2015 revealed that 70% of all French people surveyed do not believe that democracy works anymore. There is clearly a need to re-forge links with local democracy.
The first person to grasp this was the mayor of Vancouver, Canada, who in 2012 set up several working groups, whose findings were endorsed by the city council in 2013. The basic thrust was to move towards the idea of an ‘Engaged City’, in which ordinary people get involved and take a stance on issues. And it’s working! Vancouver has a population of about 600,000 people. In 2014, 40,000 of them expressed their views via the online channels provided; in 2015, it was more than double that number – over 80,000.
Meanwhile in Paris, for the last three years the municipal authorities have drawn up a ‘participatory’ budget – i.e. allowing citizens to vote on certain spending lines and items. In 2015, this totalled €100 million covering 5,000 proposals submitted by Paris residents, with 70,000 people voting in favour of medium-term investments for the French capital.
We should also mention the activities of Fluicity, a platform created by Julie de Pimodan which enables the mayor, the city hall services and city residents to dialogue, put forward suggestions, and vote, basically to collaborate on building the city they dream of living in. Now that idea rings a bell, doesn’t it? It takes us back to the concept of the Athenian Agora, of a democracy in ancient Greece where the citizens of Athens all met together in the Agora, in the town centre, to exchange ideas, discuss, vote and decide on what would be good for the city and for them. So, digital technology is perhaps well on the way to helping us make this great legend of local democracy a reality.